Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway is often considered one of the greatest drives in the world and a ride everyone should experience before they die. It does indeed provide some of the best views imaginable but there’s so much more to the San Juans than this scenic drive.
From Durango to Silverton and Ouray, there are so many things to do that will take your breath away like hiking, biking, and off roading. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about traveling on the Million Dollar Highway and all the great things to do along the way
Where is the Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway is a scenic section of the US-550 highway which runs north to south. The scenic section that we refer to as the Million Dollar Highway is the section between Durango and Ridgeway.
From north to south, the highway also passes through the small towns of Ouray and Silverton.
Why is it Called the Million Dollar Highway
So why is it called the Million Dollar Highway? Truth is, nobody knows. Ooooh spooky, right?
For real though, some say that the gravel they used to pave the road contained gold and was worth millions. Of course it could also be that the road cost that much to make, that the road weaved through a large gold mining region, or my favorite, that the views from the highway are worth millions.
Locals even joke that they call it the Million Dollar Highway because you couldn’t pay them a million dollars to drive that road in the wintertime.
Traveling on the Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway has a reputation of being a wildly dangerous drive with sheer drops and no guardrails.
First, let me reassure that when driven under normal, sunny circumstances in a standard vehicle, it’s not dangerous.
It’s true that there are a few sections without guardrails and sheer drops and if you have a fear of heights or you’re not used to driving in the mountains, it can be scary. Driving this highway however, is no more dangerous than driving on a busy freeway.
It can also be a bit unnerving to drive the Million Dollar Highway in a big RV or when towing however it is still doable.
There is really only one part of this highway that is abnormally “dangerous” and it’s the section just 10 minutes before reaching Ouray when headed northbound.
As you can see in the photo shown below, it’s a narrow two lane road but this is the part where there is no guardrail and the edge is sheer. Fortunately, on the downhill, you won’t be on the exposed side of the highway, it’s only on the way up that nervous drivers will feel a bit white knuckled.
The good new is, if you combine this with the San Juan Skyway and make your road trip a loop, then you don’t have to worry about driving on the “exposed side.”
Overall, don’t let fear hold you back from experiencing this beautiful drive. When in doubt, take it slow.
The drive leading up to Red Mountain Pass is really quite moderate and typical of Colorado roads so if just that section unnerves you, I wouldn’t recommend going on to Ouray.
That being said, it is dangerous to drive this in icy/winter conditions. Be sure to check up on road conditions before you head out on the scenic highway.
Map of the Million Dollar Highway Road Trip
With all the great stops along the Million Dollar Highway, I’ve created a custom map for you to save and view at any time on your Google Maps account.
This map includes all the top activities from hiking to climbing, biking, camping, and even just scenic stops and eateries that I later recommend in this blog.
Quick tip: If you don’t want to see certain categories on the map (example: climbing) all you have to do is click on the checkbox and all climbing spots will be hidden.
Million Dollar Highway Road Trip
Durango, often considered one of America’s best outdoor towns, is the most popular destination on the Million Dollar Highway partially due its famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This makes it a common place for travelers to stay for a few days.
Whether you plan on slowly making your way up the Million Dollar Highway, spending a day in each town, or plan on exploring the scenic drive in one day, you have to spend at least 1 day enjoying the historic town of Durango.
Durango’s unique geographic location, where the desert meets the mountains, makes it a really versatile jumping off point.
Within 15 minutes of downtown you can explore dozens of trails in the dry mountains nearby or you can head north on the Million Dollar Highway and be in jagged, alpine-esque peaks.
Don’t miss the beautiful bike path that runs along the Animas River, stroll through historic Main Street and grab a bite to eat, and if you’re looking for a challenge, take on the Centennial Nature Trail, AKA the Sky Steps which is a stairmaster that brings you to an incredible view of Durango.
Durango is also a well known climbing destination and there crags of all sorts here varying from the trad climbing hotspot of East Animas, the sport haven of Lemon Reservoir, or the bouldering area of Sailing Hawks.
Of course, if you make a trip all the way to Durango, you can’t miss the famous Narrow Gauge Railroad scenic train ride to Silverton. If you’re a hardcore adventurer, you can hop on the historic train and have them drop you off to go on a backcountry hike that’s inaccessible to cars (don’t worry, they’ll pick you up at the end as well).
Be sure to check out our blog on 10 Things to do in Durango for all the details on visiting Durango (coming soon).
Durango to Silverton
As you head north for Durango it get exponentially more beautiful. The mountains slowly get taller and the aspens get nearer as the road gets windier.
Most easily distinguished as the location of Purgatory Ski Resort and the suburb of Hermosa, this region is home to Durango’s best adventures. Here there is every outdoor activity imaginable.
You can mountain bike up the Jones/Dutch Creek loop, hike the Purgatory Trail, backpack to Chicago Basin, camp, fish, or hike on Haviland Lake, climb easy single pitch at Fume Wall, hike up to Castle Rock or even tackle the multi pitch routes that ascend the face.
Here there’s also the can’t miss restaurant James Harvest Ranch Grill, which is home to some of the best craft burgers we’ve ever tasted and is best enjoyed after a long day outdoors. Or, head to Trimble Hot Springs if you’re feeling down for some relaxation.
Just past Purgatory, there is another big adventure hub, Engineer Mountain. Engineer Mountain is one of Durango’s most stunning and strenuous day hikes, has multiple ascent options, and it can also be mountain biked on black diamond trails from point to point (experts only.)
After you pass Engineer Mountain you’ll reach the scenic viewpoint of Coal Bank Pass at 10,610 feet elevation, where you should definitely stop and take it in before weaving your way along one of the prettiest sections of the Million Dollar Highway.
Next you’ll come to Big and Little Molas Lake which are incredible places to hike and camp.
Finally, the Million Dollar Highway will descend from the ridge line into Silverton valley.
Located at a high elevation of 9310 feet, Silverton was a full scale mining town in the late 1800s and it shows to this day. While its mills and mining are no longer under operation, the town has kept its historic feel intact and it really feels as if you’ve gone back in time.
Old fashioned buildings line the street–err, well it’s just a dirt road. Silverton is about as small as a town can get without being a ghost town and if it weren’t for the major attraction, the Narrow Gauge Railroad, Silverton would be left for only the most hardcore outdoorsmen. However, what’s coolest about Silverton isn’t the vintage town feel, it’s the explorations that lie beyond.
The tiny mountain town has grown to become a major off roading hub and is the start to more than 100 miles of off roading trails and 40 different routes.
Some of the most popular and iconic rides to be enjoyed from Silverton are the Alpine Loop, Hurricane Pass and California Pass, and Engineer Pass, Black Bear Pass, Imogene Pass, and more!
Either bring your own 4X4 vehicle or rent a razor from Silverton Rock Pirates.
Silverton Rock Pirates doesn’t just offer off road vehicle rentals, they make the entire experience pure fun!
The customer service is amazing, the entire set up process is super easy, and even if you have no off roading experience their GPS and spot tracker beacons will make you feel totally safe out in the wilderness. From there, get ready for the time of you life!
No matter where you go of